'Little Men' mechanical exhibit from Cole's Book Arcade. Depicts two 'sailors' operating revolving signs with a double-crank handle. The Little Men are dressed in sailor suits, and originally had dark-coloured caps. They may have been given their white caps bearing the names HMAS Sydney and HMAS Melbourne as a patriotic gesture during World War I - these ships were launched in 1913.

The signs are a mixture of advertising slogans for Cole's Book Arcade and wise maxims which reflect Edward William Cole's belief in human equality, education and justice. The original signs have been lost, but were probably of similar content.

The 'little men' (or 'little sailors') exhibit was made for Edward William Cole, who founded Cole's Book Arcade in 1865. It was made in Melbourne in 1883 by F. Ziegler & Sons, who also made the Gog & Magog in Melbourne's Royal Arcade, the Hawthorn Town Hall clock, the 'tower clock' at Flinders Street Station and many public clocks. They originally powered by running water, and later converted to electricity. The signs have been replaced several times, most recently in 2007, with signs that better represented what Cole might have used - including sayings from his medals and books.

The Little Men appear to have been in use continually from 1883, first at the 158 Bourke Street store of Cole's Book Arcade, then at the main Bourke Street store until 1928, and finally at 255 Swanston Street in a shop operated by Cole's daughter and son-in-law under the same name, from 1929 to 1938. They were donated to Museum Victoria in 1939.

Physical Description

Mechanical exhibit, consisting of a wooden box on which is perched two figures of sailors, each holding a crank handle. When the mechanism rotates, these 'little men' appear to turn the crank handle which rotates a series of hidden cogs, finally rotating a large dum below them onto which 21 double-sided signs are attached. The signs slowly flip over, allowing sufficient time for reading. The men are dressed in black felt sailor suits (jacket and trousers) with blue-trimmed white shirt appearing from underneath and folded over to form a square panel over the shoulders. Each jacket has a rope trim at the front opening. Their caps are white with inscribed bands (see below). The faces of the men are made of a composite material and are painted pink, with blue eyes and features picked out in appropriate colours. Their hands and feet are brass. A door to the left of the signs hinges to allow access to the cog mechanism. The 'Little Men' are housed in a glazed wooden display stand, apparently non-original.


Original maker's plaque misplaced. Substitute information by Mr Ronald Ziegeler, grandson of F. Ziegeler: 'Made by J.F.W. Ziegeler, Lt. Collins St Melb. Maker of the Flinders St railway clocks and 'Gog and Magog' at the south end of the Royal Arcade, Melbourne. Most of Victoria's public clocks were also made by the same firm.'

Can be activated as a working exhibit.

Museum of Applied Science of Victoria file no. 43 contains correspondence about the Cole's Little Men, including two newspaper cuttings. The Argus, 30 August 1950, reports Sir John Latham's reminiscences of the Cole's Book Arcade, where 'for 55 years, from 1883 - 1938, two little mechanical men, at the main entrance turned the cranks at each end of a roller on which were displayed Mr E.W. Cole's thoughts about books.' There is also an undated cutting by 'The Rouseabout' retelling a story from the First World War, when some troops were required to use a hand winch at Imbros Island when the steam winch had broken down. Before the officer in charge had finished instructing the men, they yelled 'Cole's Book Arcade' and moved the winch round and round so that the stores came up from below.

The files do not include information about the text of the original signs, but they were replaced c.1951 with 'new information on the display plates' and in c.1956 with new directional signs advertising exhibitions within the Museum of Applied Science. They were replaced again about the 1970s, since from that point they advertised Cole Turnley's 1974 book Cole of the Book Arcade. In 2007 they were again replaced, with signs that better represented what Cole might have used - including sayings from his medals and books.

Cole's Book Arcade opened in the Bourke Street Mall in 1883, after earlier operating from other sites. It was a shop like no other, crammed with new and second-hand books and other wares, but with the atmosphere of a circus. Cole enticed customers of all ages with a menagerie and fernery, a band, a clockwork symphonion and other mechanical delights. Readers could sit in comfortable chairs, encouraged by a sign: 'Read for as Long as You Like - Nobody Asked to Buy'. The Arcade's proprietor, Edward William Cole, was optimist and idealist, believing passionately in the power of education and envisaged a world without borders, expounding his views in pamphlets and books. Cole died in 1918, still dreaming of a better future. Cole's Book Arcade, one of the wonders of 'marvellous Melbourne', closed in 1929.

More Information